Ander Monson’s “Essay as Hack” is a sort of hypertextual, new media essay about the essay as hyperactive text. He writes print essays that are in some ways, minimally, linked to the web. This one, you notice, has a hyperlink to another essay from his first book (Neck Deep), that is now included in a website that is somehow (not entirely clear) part of those essays. He does something similar with his recent book Vanishing Point–a print book of essays with adjoining or complementary or further reading available on the web at his main site, Other Electricities. But Monson has in mind not just the essay in new media forms, the essay updated for new technologies. He is thinking about the essay itself as a technology for thinking.
And so the futuristic and new in Monson’s mind returns us to the old medium of Montaigne’s essay, theater of the brain, thought thinking. For example:
Each essay we read is as close as we can get to another mind. It is a simulation of the mind working its way through a problem. This is not to suggest that every essay is good, revelatory, successful, fruitful, interesting. But stepping into an essay is stepping into the writer’s mind. We are thrown into the labyrinth, a huge stone rolling behind us. It is a straight shot of the brain in all its immediacy, its variety, strands of half-remembered text, partly-thought-through ideas, images below the surface of memory. We are thrown into process: of thinking, which is like an algorithm, a machine for replicating or simulating thought….
The essay is a thinking and writing machine; or more to Monson’s point, to essay is to hack one’s way through the process of thinking: the essay as hack is a technology repurposed to solve a sort of problem. Monson’s essay returns us to our starting point: the essay on the essay, the philosophy of the essay. But it also pushes us forward in developing its rhetoric, the effects of its argument, by way of its philosophy of essay poetics. The essay as technology or machine or hacking of our thinking machinery emphasizes the importance of the “process” by which essays are made. Process, as we have been hearing, is a keyword and interest of the new media essay.
And so, for the experimental third writing project, the purpose is for you to explore and consider more directly the process (and by extension, the processing) of the essay. For a complement, to Monson’s sense of the essay as hypertext, consider Shelley Jackson’s essay on hypertext narrative (she’s the author that writes the hypertext memoir, “My Body”).
My hack of Monson’s hack as essay (my digital annotations) is available here.